The decision to extend the three-year residency rule to five years as of 2020 will likely achieve the desired effect of slowing the drain of players from Pacific Island nations but it may have a secondary effect that slows the development of rugby worldwide.
Everybody knows that bigger and richer rugby nations like New Zealand, Australia, France and England are countries that have had players from the Pacific Islands play for them, the reason behind this is, of course, money. Putting national pride aside, the potential to make a decent living and provide for your family through playing rugby is much easier for a Pacific Island player if they choose to play in one of the bigger nations.
On top of that players often benefit from the bigger nations’ superior coaching and sporting facilities that they gain access to when they decide to move and so they often improve in form and ability once they’ve changed unions.
It’s no surprise that some players make the national teams of the unions they’ve moved to after a mere three years of living there. They have all come from places that have established rugby cultures that have an ability to produce exceptional athletes who have skillsets that most players from the Northern Hemisphere could only dream of having. Give them three years of professional level support to develop their game and it’s no wonder so many players are picked.
It makes sense that the Pacific Island nations will most likely see their strength improve as a result of the law change but there’s a host of other emerging rugby nations that will likely suffer as a result.
Emerging rugby nations such as Germany have a strong foreign player presence in their national set up and other countries that have committed to the development of rugby such as China would surely benefit from a bit of foreign expertise. A national cap is one of the biggest lures a smaller rugby nation can offer a foreign based player and extending that lure from three years to five is a significant extension for a player who might be tempted to make a move.
Of course it is important for emerging nations to develop their own rugby cultures and players if they ever truly want to be able to compete on the world stage with the established rugby nations but the truth is that the difference in skill and ability might be too big to ever close. Having foreign players involved in the highest level of club rugby in minnow rugby nations is now becoming common place and there are vacancies littering Facebook feeds all over the world that offer semi-professional style contracts in a lot of these emerging rugby countries.
They don’t only lure the best and brightest talent that the Pacific Islands have to offer they also catch a group of players who perhaps were simply not good enough to ever play for one of the big rugby nations. They are good enough to play for minnow nations however and the thought of playing some international rugby regardless of the respected nation is no doubt still a dream for many a club grade player out there.
Having this type of player present in foreign competitions helps the host nation improve their game by exposing their home grown players to a style of rugby that only guys from established rugby nations would ever be able to teach and is a driving force behind helping to develop smaller nations ability.
The reason why this could be a big loss to the game is simply because of population size and money. If rugby managed to not only establish itself in one of countries that it is currently growing but actually flourish and break into the mainstream public consciousness, then it would open a massive market for the game that the Pacific Islands will never be able to offer.
Imagine if China developed to a point where it could challenge Japan for dominance of Asian rugby, it might just ignite a rivalry that could take the game to another level of popularity and worldwide exposure. The same goes for wealthy western nations such as Germany, Holland, USA, Canada, Belgium or a host of other European nations.
If rugby developed to a point where it actually mattered to any of these countries the contribution it could make to rugby as a worldwide sport would be enormous. They question is what’s more important, protecting what already exists in the Pacific Islands or continuing rugby’s development in smaller unions but far richer and bigger countries? I guess the recently announced extension answers that question for the time being.
Teo Fudakowski, Pundit Arena